Well I never

About 10 minutes into Wales’ opening Euro 20201 match against Switzerland I realised that my heart was racing alarmingly. I just couldn’t take it. So I muted the TV and disappeared into the back garden to do something far more relaxing and healthy: wrestle with raspberry canes in the hot sun. At half-time I popped back into the house to peek at the score and was delighted to see it was still 0-0. Then throughout the entire second half I continued pottering in the garden before eventually summoning up the courage to check the score on my phone half an hour after the final whistle.

1-1! Brilliant! We didn’t lose! We’ve still got a chance of making the knock-out phase!

Having only watched brief highlights I will make no comment about the game itself except: great header Kieffer-o! Wales’ head-to-head record against Switzerland has reached P8, W2, D1, L5, Goals F7-A17. Now it’s just the little matter of giving Turkey (population 85 million) a good stuffing…

The tournament is turning out to be gripping already, most shockingly when Denmark’s midfield maestro Christian Eriksen had a cardiac arrest on the pitch during the Group B match against Finland. Prompt medical attention ensured Eriksen survived, but it seems likely his playing days are prematurely over at age 29.

The incident brought to my morbid, maudlin, mawkish mind the tragic deaths in the 145-year narrative of Welsh football. Go on, admit it: you like to wallow in human misery as much as the rest of us (check out the murder-packed schedules of all the TV channels). So, as a sort of preparation/come-down/consolation (delete as appropriate) for Baku this evening, pour yourself a stiff drink and settle back. Here, in alphabetical order, are some Welsh international footballers who didn’t get to have a happy ending.

ALAN DAVIES (1961-1992)
Manchester-born midfielder Davies qualified as Welsh through his father, winning his first of 13 caps in 1983 when he had only made five appearances for the Manchester United first team – albeit two of them being the 1983 FA Cup Final against Brighton & Hove Albion and the replay. Dogged by injury, he never fulfilled that early promise, wandering via Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic, Carlisle United , Swansea City and Bradford City to Swansea City again. He was still on Swansea’s books when he ended it all at Horton on the tip of the Gower peninsular. Having dropped his daughter off at school, he drove to the remote location and killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car. In the UK suicide is the highest cause of death among men under 45.

ARTHUR DAVIES (1880-1949)
Winger Davies’s brief football career peaked in 1904, when in quick succession he was capped by Wales, won the Welsh Cup with Druids and was transferred to English club West Bromwich Albion. WBA quickly shifted him on to Middlesbrough, with whom he won his second and final Welsh cap in 1905 but where he failed to break into the first team. He returned to Wales and concentrated on soccer administration and running a building firm in Wrecsam. Things didn’t go well. Increasingly plagued by money and health worries, Arthur Davies drowned himself in the River Dee at Overton.

WALTER DAVIS (1888-1937)
Born in Mold but raised in London, Wally Davis was a dazzling centre-forward with Millwall between 1911 and 1915, scoring 67 goals in 114 Southern League appearances and winning five Welsh caps until WW1 brought his blossoming career to a halt. During the Great Depression after the war he got work as a labourer in London Docks, and it was in the nearby Bow Creek that he was found drowned in mysterious circumstances at age 48. Was he pushed, was it an accident, or did he jump? Since he didn’t have an enemy in the world and was a very strong swimmer, suicide is the most likely explanation.

ROY EVANS (1943-1969)
After making his debut for Swansea Town when still a teenager, fullback Evans played 214 League games for his hometown club, winning one Welsh cap in 1964. In 1968 Welsh legend John Charles (1931-2004), attempting to build a career in management at non-league Hereford United, signed Evans along with his Swansea team-mate Brian Purcell (1938-1969) and the pair regularly travelled together by car from Swansea to Hereford for United’s Southern League matches. On one such trip they were both killed outright in a head-on smash on the notoriously dangerous ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road near Ebbw Vale.

FRED HUGHES (1860-1923)
Northwich Victoria defender Hughes won six Welsh caps between 1882 and 1884 before the English FA noticed he was born in England, contested his qualification and ended his international career. He ran a builders’ merchants in Northwich in the early decades of the 20th century until he met a watery grave falling into the meandering, turbulent River Dane one foggy night in Cheshire

ROBBIE JAMES (1957-1998)
Gorseinon’s Robbie James made his debut for Swansea City when only 16 and went on to make 482 League appearances (118 goals) for the club in two spells – the 4th highest total in Swansea’s history. The tough-tackling, all-action midfielder was integral to the Jacks’ extraordinary rise through the English League under John Toshack in the early 1980s. He won four Welsh Cup winner’s medals, was capped 47 times by Wales between 1978 and 1988 and gave sterling service to a clutch of other English clubs: Stoke City, Queens Park Rangers, Leicester City, Bradford City and Cardiff City. His final tally of 782 English League appearances puts him 7th in the all-time appearance list and the top Welshman. Renowned for his stamina and resilience, he moved into the Welsh pyramid for a season with Barry Town in the League of Wales (today’s Cymru Premier) before becoming Llanelli’s player-manager in 1996. He died with his boots on – literally – playing for Llanelli against Porthcawl Town in the Welsh League (today’s Cymru South). There were no defibrillators at Stebonheath Park back in 1998. There are today.

DAVID JONES (1867-1902)
Cool, cultured fullback ‘Di’ Jones was Chirk’s captain and linchpin when they won the Welsh Cup in 1887 and 1888. Already capped by Wales, he joined Bolton Wanderers in the inaugural English Football League season and soon became their captain and linchpin too. In ten seasons with Bolton Jones made 228 League appearances before he moved to Manchester City in 1898. He was a City regular for three seasons, in which he increased his total of Welsh caps to 14, when disaster struck during a pre-season practice match at City’s Hyde Road ground in 1902. Di fell and gashed his knee on a shard of metal, the club’s doctor superficially treated the cut and sent him home to Bolton to convalesce, and a week later he was dead. Tetanus had entered the wound.

JOHN JONES (1860-1902)
John Jones was a stalwart half-back for Llangollen club Berwyn Rangers, winning three Welsh caps in the 1880s. After hanging up his boots he ran a small farm near Trefor. One morning he was found shot dead in a field, the shotgun beside him. To put it in today’s prevaricating police jargon: nobody else was sought in connection with his death. It’s a hard life.

LOVE JONES (1885-1913)
Rhyl’s utility forward Love Jones seemed a bright prospect when signed by Stoke in 1905, but he never really capitalised on that potential. He won two Welsh caps when first-choice men were unavailable, but his impact at Stoke, followed by periods at Crewe Alexandra and Middlesbrough, was minimal. His form improved with Southern League Portsmouth – until in 1913 he contracted tuberculosis. Returning to his family home in Rhyl, within months he was dead at age 28.

DAVID LEWIS (1864-1925)
The son of the Dean of Bangor Cathedral, winger Lewis of Bangor City won two Welsh caps in 1890 and showed some promise. But within months he gave up football to concentrate on what turned out to be an appalling career as head of the British South Africa Company’s police force in Bulawayo (then in Matabeleland, later Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). He took part in the vicious suppression of the Matabele people’s 1896/97 rebellion against the authority of the British invaders and later was a captain in the South African Defence Force that established the principles of apartheid. In 1925 he became seriously ill on a ship bound for England and was put ashore at Durban, where he promptly dropped dead. It’s almost enough to make one believe in karma…but not quite.

BILLY MATHEWS (1883-1921)
Also developed by Rhyl, Billy Mathews (sometimes spelt with a double ‘t’) won two Welsh caps when playing for Chester, having joined them in 1904. The half-back was a big favourite at Sealand Road for nearly a decade, although the gulf between non-league football in England’s Combination League and the international game inevitably proved too wide to cross. His life was wrecked by his horrific experiences in WW1 as a shoesmith in the Royal Horse Artillery and he died aged 39 of heart disease contracted in the trenches.

TOMMY MILLS (1911-1979)
Tommy Mills from Pentre in the Rhondda Fawr played for Ton Pentre before heading to London to escape a life down the mines. Clapton Orient of England’s Division 3 South signed the creative inside-left in 1929 and he made 119 League appearances (20 goals) for the East London club, scoring a goal in Orient’s last League match at Millfields before the club moved to Lea Bridge Road in 1930, becoming a fans’ favourite for his ball control and shrewd prompting and winning two Welsh caps. He won two more Welsh caps after he made the big step-up to First Division football with Leicester City in 1934, but that proved a step too far and he returned to the 3rd tier to see out his career with Bristol Rovers, making 99 League appearances (17 goals) for the Eastville club. He settled in Bristol and it was there that he met his violent denouement: run over by a lorry while crossing the road.

HUGH MORRIS (1872-1897)
Clever Chirk playmaker Morris came to the attention of English clubs when, at age 18, he scored the only goal in the 1-0 victory over Wrexham in the 1890 Welsh Cup final at the Racecourse. He had stints at Sheffield United, Manchester City and Grimsby Town, winning three Welsh caps, and had just been transferred to Millwall when he died back home in Chirk of tuberculosis, that era’s contagious, lethal pandemic.

DIGBY OWEN (1857-1901)
Oswestry man Owen won a single Welsh cap in 1879, Wales’ first ever match against England (a 2-1 defeat at Kennington Oval). The amateur inside-forward was an Oxford graduate and soon gave up football to concentrate on his profession as a private tutor. He was only 43 when he died of pneumonia; the so-called ‘old man’s friend’ that also ended the lives of many younger people before the advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the 20th century.

ELIAS OWEN (1863-1888)
From Llanllechid in the foothills of Eryri, goalkeeper Owen won three consecutive Welsh caps in 1884 before going to Lampeter College to study theology. Married, with two young children, and living with his parents in the rectory of St Michael’s church in Efenechtyd near Rhuthun, where his father the noted antiquarian Elias Owen (1833-1899) was vicar, he hanged himself with leather reins from a yew tree in the churchyard when only 25. God did not intervene to stop him. The official explanation was that he was depressed by the disappointing outcome of his final examinations at Lampeter, but family members attributed the suicide to his discovery that his wife was having an affair.

CHARLIE PARRY (1869-1922)
Born in Llansilin, on the Welsh side of the border near Oswestry, Parry was a hard-working utility player for Everton in the early years of the English League and a key member of the team that lifted the club’s first English title in 1891. After leaving Everton he ran a pub in Newtown, playing for the town club at The Cunnings ground and continuing to be capped by Wales to bring his final total of caps to 13. His footballing days had a glorious Indian summer at Aberystwyth Town, when he helped the Old Black & Green win the Welsh Cup in 1900 for the first and still the only time. After that it was downhill all the way in a life of grinding poverty and ill health in Oswestry with his wife and six children before he succumbed to tuberculosis, aged only 52.

MAURICE PARRY (1877-1935)
Oswestry-born half-back Maurice Parry was discovered by Newtown and went on to have an excellent career with Liverpool between 1900 and 1909, making 206 League appearances, winning a Second Division Championship medal in 1905 and a First Division Championship medal the following season and earning 16 Welsh caps while at Anfield. In WW1, a Second Lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers, he was gassed on the Western Front and never recovered from the long-term effects. The fine singer and musician was stricken with chronic bronchitis for the rest of his life and died at age 57 – one of the millions of uncounted casualties of the ‘War to end all Wars’.

DICK RICHARDS (1890-1934)
A Chirk discovery from Glyn Ceiriog, winger Dick Richards won nine Welsh caps during a WW1-interrupted career with Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Ham United, Fulham and Mold. For West Ham he played in the first Wembley FA Cup Final in 1923, the famous ‘White Horse Final’ when an estimated 300,000 poured into the stadium after entrance gates were broken down – the largest ever attendance at a football match to this day. Just a decade later, working for an electricity company, he sustained a terrible back injury while unloading heavy poles and died in Salford Royal Infirmary at the age of 43.

WILLIAM ROGERS (1905-1936)
Having been signed from Flint Town, versatile, consistent ‘Billy’ Rogers was a dynamic half-back for Wrexham in England’s Division 3 North for six seasons, making 171 League appearances and winning two Welsh caps. He subsequently played for Newport County, Clapton Orient and Bangor City when, unbeknown to him, he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma – an aggressive blood cancer, untreatable at the time. The diagnosis had only been revealed to his wife and she had decided not to tell him. But there was no hiding the truth when tuberculosis soon overwhelmed his fatally compromised immune system and he was dead by age 30.

HENRY SABINE (1865-1955)
Considering he reached the grand old age of 90, retired bank manager Henry Sabine’s death can hardly be considered tragic. It’s more about the manner of his passing: run over by a corporation bus when he was on his way to a cricket match in Harrogate, Yorkshire. The young Sabine, a nippy winger with Oswestry Town who won a solitary Welsh cap against Ireland in 1887 and scored the Welsh goal in the humiliating 4-1 defeat at the Cliftonville Cricket Ground in Belfast, would have been much more alert.

GARY SPEED (1969-2011)
Skillful, stylish midfielder Speed from Hawarden in Flintshire came through the Leeds United youth system to make 248 League appearances for the Yorkshire club and win the First Division Championship in 1992 (the last season before the formation of the English Premier League). Later he played for Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United, racking up a total of 677 League appearances (614 in the top flight) and 104 goals. For Wales he won 85 caps between 1990 and 2004, becoming Wales’ most-capped outfield player until overtaken by Chris Gunter, Gareth Bale and Ashley Williams. In December 2010 he became Wales manager and he was laying the foundations of the successes to come when he inexplicably hanged himself in the garage of his Cheshire home. The whole Welsh nation was shell-shocked.

DAVID THOMSON (1847-1876)
Anywhere else in the world David Thomson would be a figure of national renown. In 1869, along with his brother George Thomson (1854-1937) and Llewelyn Kenrick (1847-1933), he was one of the founders of the Plasmadoc club, forerunner of Druids and today’s Cefn Druids, the oldest surviving Welsh football club. Then in January 1876 Kenrick and the Thomson boys founded the FAW itself, the first ever pan-Wales national body. All three proceeded to play in Wales’ first ever match against Scotland in March 1876, with David in goal. But less than six months later he died suddenly in Rhiwabon at the age of 29. There were many possible causes of sudden death 150 years ago; could the rough-house treatment he had received from the Scottish forwards at the Hamilton Crescent ground in Glasgow be responsible?

REES WILLIAMS (1900-1963)
When he burst on the scene in the 1920s, tricky Merthyr Town winger Williams was hailed as the new Billy Meredith. He was signed by Sheffield Wednesday and for five seasons the 5ft 5in speedster was a fixture in the side, making 163 League appearances and being an integral member of the 1925/1926 team that won the Second Division title to bring top-tier football back to Hillsborough. His form declined, he spent a short spell at Manchester United and then quickly faded from the professional game. In all, he won eight Welsh caps. Back home in Abercanaid, he got a job in the new Hoover factory after WW2 and coached the factory team for a while. But former sportsmen find persistent health problems especially difficult to handle, and at age 63 Williams decided he had endured enough and took an overdose.